“You’ve Gotta Laugh to Keep from Crying”: An Interview with Thundercat

Torii MacAdams speaks with Thundercat about his cat, his new record, 'Drunk,' and taking time to say hello to strangers.
By    April 23, 2017

thundercat

When Thundercat and I spoke–or, rather, when he was interrogated by a slow-witted journalist at 9:30 on a Thursday morning–he was watching Scooby Doo as his cat chased the just-wakin’-up sounds of a cloudless Los Angeles day. Drunk, his third album, was due to be released the following week, and the pitch-perfect bassist had been dragooned into humoring a cadre of mumbly geek bloggers. To Thundercat’s credit, he’s graceful in drudgery: he’s personable and thoughtful, and was only outwardly annoyed when asked about the possibility of an album with his brothers, drummer Ronald and keyboardist Jameel. Our interview covers the important things–kitties, jazz, and racism–because I can’t help veiling my inveterate seriousness behind yuk-yuk silliness. I suspect he’s the same way. —Torii MacAdams


I read that you went to Locke High School in the early 2000’s. What was that like? How did going to Locke affect your perception of music?


Thundercat: Rough. Lots of gangbanging. It was very difficult, but at the same time I was very focused in high school. I feel like it helped me take things seriously. High school was a bit of reality for me, and I learned the reality in life from high school.


How would you describe that reality?


Thundercat: Everything is terrible.


I noticed that a lot of Drunk is about being alone, or rejecting the presence of other people. I’d read in old interviews that you laugh a lot while recording, but do you feel like loneliness or separation has become part of your process?


Thundercat: Oh, absolutely. I think there’s good things—you need space, you need time. If you can be okay by yourself, it’s awesome.


A lot of the album is one- or two-minute songs. What inspired that choice?


Thundercat: A lot of the album is a stream of consciousness. A lot of the album is me pondering.


Do you think jazz is capable of expressing the complexities of life in Los Angeles?


Thundercat: Yeah, absolutely, of course. It’s about improvisation—we connect to it, and consider jazz to be the improvisation of every day. You have to make decisions through the course of every day, and understand things and try to make the soundest decision. Jazz is a key part of that.


The flipside of that question is whether you think young people in Los Angeles are capable of embracing jazz, or using a jazz ethos to better themselves?


Thundercat: Good question. I think that people in L.A. act like they know everything [laughing] so it’ll take a second. I think that at some point people will take to jazz like they used to. There’s a jazz crowd, but then there are also people that are being introduced to it again. There’s a learning curve. But I think people in L.A. can definitely appreciate jazz.


This is kind of a callback to an earlier question, but how did growing up in L.A. affect how you perceived music? Having grown up in L.A., I know that it’s easy to, like, fall into different genres.


Thundercat: It just gives you a love of the very big palette you’re given to work with. You understand [that] everyone that moves to L.A. is trying to do something, and there’s a part where you try to understand what a person’s trying to do. I feel like L.A. is a very special place for that, and it definitely changes your idea of who you think you are and what you want to do. It’s always for the better, it’s never for worse.


Have you noticed fatherhood changing your music, or your outlook on life?


Thundercat: Oh yeah! For real. Absolutely. [Having] my daughter is watching a young woman grow, and trying to relate and keep up. I felt like I had to succeed for her.


This is kind of a related family question: How did you get the name for your cat, Turbo Tron Over 9000 Baby Jesus Sally? And how’d you get the cat in the first place?


Thundercat: It started with me naming her “Turbo Tron,” because I was watching Breaking 2: Electric Boogaloo. I thought my cat was like Tron in the movie; Tron is a very funny character in Electric Boogaloo. It went from that to trolling to see how far we could go with it. Me and my daughter kept coming up with names for Tron, and it just stuck.

Tron came from my neighbor’s daughter, when I was younger. My neighbors had a daughter that was growing up, and she gave me Tron as a parting gift.


Little did she know that Tron would inspire two different songs.


Thundercat: More than two songs. Again, Tron is very social, very awesome. The two songs are just the ones that people recognize, but there’s probably…I’m always talking to my cat.


Is that cathartic? Do you bounce ideas off of yourself, kind of?


Thundercat: Yeah, I bounce everything off of Tron.


You’ve mentioned in other interviews that your mom’s an observant Christian. A lot of your work has apocalyptic themes, and you’ve talked about the end of days. Would you describe yourself as religious or spiritual?


Thundercat: Absolutely, man. It’s interweaved in my music to a major degree. I still go to church. I grew up very Christian, and I still try to understand everything, what it means. I still go to church on Sundays.


Have you found that your religious experiences inspire you to make music?


Thundercat: Yeah, I think that’s all part of it. I think that your experience in life is what comes through in the music, be it religion, or family, or love–all these things play a factor into how you create.


I saw that you just put out a song with Ronald [Bruner Jr., older brother and professional drummer], “Take The Time.” Do you plan on doing a whole Bruner family album at some point?


Thundercat: No. Music and family is a very weird thing. If anybody has ever had music in their family, and [everyone in the family] does music, you’d understand a little bit more. It’s not as easy as a Swiss Family Robinson-type thing, full of happy musicians. It’s not The Osmonds. It can be like that sometimes, but I feel like it’s bigger than that. A lot of times it’s not to be messed with. It’s one of those things where you respect each other in the manner that you do, and you have different ways that deal with things that people normally deal with. It’s slightly different.


So you prefer to work with people outside of your family. You find that chemistry easier?


Thundercat: I find working with people very easy. It’s not that I don’t find working with my family very easy, it’s just that everything has its place. Everything is different. Working with people is a different dynamic every time, just like it is working with family. A lot of the time my collaborations are not driven by the fact that I have family that does music.


On the new album you have a song with Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. Would you describe their music as “yacht rock”?


Thundercat: No. I would describe their music as “awesome,” and I feel like “yacht rock” is a term that’s created for a person to connect to it. Just like anything else, people have to compartmentalize things. “Yacht rock” is just another term that’s kind of corny, and it denotes so much less than what the music is.


What about Loggins and McDonald’s music appeals to you?


Thundercat: The heart that’s in the music. The music is very fulfilling, and there’s stories to be told from it. You ask questions when you hear Kenny and Michael, and at the same time they answer them. They’re very straightforward with their music.


Who do you think has the better version of “What A Fool Believes?”


Thundercat: Oh man…Michael, of course. Kenny’s is pretty intense, but it’s Michael, man.


Who else from that era do you like listening to? I was admittedly pretty surprised when I saw that Loggins and McDonald were on the tracklist.


Thundercat: Gino Vannelli. Have you heard of him?


Erm, no.


Thundercat: He’s a Canadian singer. He’s one guy, if you get a chance, you should check out. His songwriting is amazing. George Michael, of course, with Wham! and Donald Fagen to name a few.


Are there people you’re looking to collaborate with in the future? I know you’ve said that you’re a big Drake fan, and you’ve talked about working with Lil B before.


Thundercat: As time passes, I feel less and less connected to Drake. I would love to work with Donald Fagen, John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and see what there is to create.


This is kind of an oddly specific question, but on the beginning of “Walk On By,” it kind of sounds like a sample of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” or Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That.” Is that intentional, or am I just hearing things?


Thundercat: Definitely just hearing things [laughing]. I’m happy that you feel that when you hear the music, because those guys are definitely parts of my process. It’s nice to hear that, because it makes me feel like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.


The album is sort of cyclical with the opener, “Rabbot Ho,” and the closer, “DUI.” Is the album meant to be listened to where you can flip the record and replay it in a circular, self-contained way?


Thundercat: Yeah, I feel like the album is a train of thought, and I feel like people have their moments that speak louder to them. It’s an album that you have to sit with and listen to over and over to get. It’s not just a cool song and then “Oh, I’m just gonna fast-forward through this song”–there’s a lot of different ideas on this album. Sometimes you’ll wanna hear the whole, entire idea.


Earlier in your career you were a reluctant singer. How would you describe your singing, or how would you describe the evolution of your singing?


Thundercat: I’ve definitely been forced to sing more. It took me a second to adjust to it, but I feel comfortable now. Because it’s so much more in the front of what I do now, I feel comfortable doing it. It took a second, though, talking and singing. I was very quiet when I was younger–that’s the best way to describe it.


Was the reluctance an issue with your voice, or with expressing your ideas and thoughts?


Thundercat: It was my voice, specifically. I hate to hear myself talk sometimes.


I feel you on that. Listening to recordings of my interviews is pretty damn painful. How did the recording process with Kendrick Lamar for “Walk On By” go?


Thundercat: I had recorded the idea, and a lot of the times I bounce things off of Kenny–“Hey, man, check this out”–no matter if there were lyrics or it was just an idea. I sent him the song with the intent of finding out what he’d think or feel about it, and I forget what point it turned into a song that was gonna be on the album, but he added what he felt went to it. He was totally into the idea. He’s always been attuned to the messages I’m conveying. He took to it very quickly, and I appreciated him for that.

It felt like I was the one who was lacking, or I should’ve told him to check it out. It’s just weird, because I don’t expect anyone to do anything like that for me. It was very difficult for me to, like, process the part where he was very open to it. At the same time, I feel like the song tells a story now because he got involved with it.


I have a question–and you don’t really have to answer it–but a lot of the album is self-aware and socially aware, which is why I’m asking. Do you feel like you need to have a sense of humor if you’re black and socially aware?


Thundercat: Oh, hell yeah. The shit is fucked up. You’ve gotta laugh to keep from crying, you know? It’s not easy for anybody, to be honest with you. But at the same time, if you’re talking about being black, it’s very difficult. Every day is very difficult. Nobody will understand the feeling of that unless they are that, because the world has its way of dealing with things.

Being black has always been a job of having to prove your worth. There’s a joke I always have when stuff is getting weird: “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?” And sometimes it’ll make somebody laugh, and sometimes it’ll really stick like, “Oh, crap, it really is because I’m black.” I do think you have to laugh to keep from crying as a black man.


That’s a great answer. Thanks for answering that question. I know it’s an odd one to hear from a little Jewish dude.


Thundercat: You know the struggle’s real. Having to say “Black Lives Matter”….who the fuck has to do that? It’s fucked up. Nobody has to prove their worth on a consistent basis, but as a black guy you’re always left trying to prove that you’re worth it, that you’re a person. People keep telling you that you’re not, like you’re supposed to take the shit. That’s bullshit, absolute bullshit.

And everyone’s surprised when you’re, like, okay. [a sardonic laugh] They’re like, “Oh, cool, you’re okay!” You know, the steps the person has to go through to be okay sometimes is very difficult and strenuous. Now that you got me thinking about it…it’s not easy. It’s not.


From my perspective as a listener and pseudo-journalist, it’s like, I can identify and be empathetic…but I don’t know exactly what to say or do…


Thundercat: I had a really raw moment the other day. My girlfriend is mixed–she’s black and white–and I think she’s experienced more of the white side of life by way of the fact that she’s very pretty. People take to her very kindly. She didn’t grow up with slavery as a base for how things go. She read the story of Emmett Till, and it broke her heart. She didn’t understand why anybody would do that. It was just…having to explain to her how the world looks at black dudes. That really moved me, because she didn’t understand it. She didn’t understand why.

And seeing in the news where this–I’m not gonna call her a “lady”–this bitch [Carolyn Bryant] lied on a 14 year-old child. Had him hanged and murdered. You can imagine being 14, and you don’t understand shit when you’re a kid. You’re trying to understand how your dick works; you’re trying to understand what it means to like somebody; you smell weird; you’re developing emotions; and here you are, with the weight of full-on criminality being put on your shoulders, like you already fucked up for responding, for saying “hi,” for knowing how to read. And you get murdered for it. You genuinely get murdered for it.

I don’t think anybody would understand that reality. You have to accept that the cops don’t really fuck with you–it’s part of your nature. And then you seem paranoid, you seem crazy, and it becomes a very funny joke: “Niggas is crazy!” The world will make you crazy. But it’s still our job to put forward and see the better in people.

I don’t hate a Donald Trump. I feel like everybody’s scared and wants to survive and be worth something, and know that they left a mark. We’re not gonna do it stepping on each other. It’ll never work. We’re not the first humans to experience these problems, these dilemmas. At the same time, it is our problem now for us to fix, now, in real time. That question kind of struck a chord with me, because every day is difficult.


The Emmett Till murder was fuckin’ gross.


Thundercat: That shit hurts. It’s a fuckin’ stain on our history. And it set the tone for how people thought things were supposed to go. I would hope that a person–when they go home and look at their child, and [know] how important their child is to them, and how important their neighbor’s child is to them–that they would understand. That shit feels like it was my little brother. The worst thing is feeling like nobody values you. Like thank God I play music. Thank God I have parents that love me enough to stick around because the world doesn’t fuckin’ love you. The laugh to keep from crying thing is a real thing.


Do you feel like being a performer complicates that? Where you’re expected to entertain–


Thundercat: Naw, I think the arts are so much bigger than life. And if it makes a person comfortable to hear music and art–it’s a connotation for so much more. Being that I’m black and an entertainer, it doesn’t feel contrived, like I’m doing something because I’m black. It feels like I’m doing something that I would hope everybody would do: Try to be more creative with their time. There’s so many things that you could add to as opposed to take away from.


Right. I didn’t mean to sound like I was trivializing the arts, I just meant your role as a black man–


Thundercat: Yeah, the stereotypes are either you’re a musician or a sports guy. I fuckin’ hate sports. I hate basketball, I hate football, and I hate the fakeness that it brings about between people. But I also have to acknowledge that it brings people together and becomes a social thing where you can talk to somebody about football or basketball. I’m not really into it.

That black thing is a real thing. I experienced it with my dad growing up. I’ve had ex-girlfriends, where she has a complex because she thinks being black isn’t good enough. Always trying to be more of a hoe, or do something over and above to let you know she’s not terrible. I’ve had those moments. I just feel like this isn’t a race. Some people get it, some people don’t.


Shit, man, I didn’t mean to fuck up your morning by asking you about race.


Thundercat: No, no, no–nobody’s ever asked me that question. Nobody’s ever asked me that question. But the truth is it didn’t fuck my morning up. My high school was built where the ‘65 riots started. I was built for this. I’m not scared or sad about it at all. I’m unapologetically black. I said that on Twitter one time: “Stop apologizing for being black.” Everybody’s looking to discredit the next dude, make him seem like shit–the truth is most people are pieces of shit, but at the same time people are learning. That’s how I look at things: People are growing and learning all the time. You have to learn to not be racist, or not to take it seriously.


I grew up in Los Angeles, and people try to play it off like a diverse place, but it’s actually fairly segregated, and you’re supposed to be conscious of other races and not necessarily acknowledge it. It was kind of a weird place to grow up.


Thundercat: The truth is [that] you can live in a bubble. You have to go out of your way to say “hi” every day. In the song that my brother wrote [“Take The Time”], take the time to tell somebody you really love them. We need to know that we’re together. This shit is lonely. When a person has their money, they have their family, they have their life–that’s it. Why would I contribute to something that makes a difference? I make it a point to say “hi” to everybody that I don’t know, just to let them know that someone is in their space, that you’re aware of each other. People like to go off into some headphones and act like they’re on their own.

I remember one time–this is actually pretty funny–me and Flying Lotus decided to go work out one day. We went to go do a hike up this canyon in L.A. You always hear about mountain lions, rattlesnakes, all these different animals, and me and him are going for this jog. I’m actually wearing tennis shoes–I usually wear sandals–but I actually got tennis shoes for this jog, which was pretty funny to Lotus. So we go on this hike, and this lady is jogging in the opposite direction, and we’re at the top of this mountain. It took a good 15-20 minutes to get to, which would imply that, if anything was to happen, it would take a person 15-20 minutes to figure it out. She’s jogging, and we see this rattlesnake crossing the path, so I hit Lotus in the chest and I’m like, “Look, dude, look, it’s a real rattlesnake.”

And this chick has her headphones on, her head’s down, her glasses on, and me and Lotus look at each other like, “No way. Is she about to die right now?” We started yelling at her and signaling to her to stop moving, and it had to come to us almost throwing a rock at her because she was so in another world that she almost stepped on a rattlesnake. There are two different parts to that that my mind started working with: Did she ignore me because she’s scared of the fact that there’s a big black dude yelling at her? Or is she that dumb to where she’s not aware of her surroundings? And me and Lotus both pondered it for a second, because both of us wanted her to die. [Laughing] I was like “You got your iPhone?” because it might take ‘em a minute to get up here, so we may have to suck the poison out and it might freak her out. It was a whole thought process.

The fact that this woman was so fuckin’ oblivious. She was like “Oh my God!” “Oh my God!?” Really? You’re just not that cognizant of space and time? People aren’t cognizant of each other, and that’s something you spoke to just now, where growing up in L.A. people aren’t cognizant of each other. The protesting is very beautiful and nice, but you get out in the traffic, you see the money divide, you see all kinds of stuff…you can’t give up totally. You can’t be discouraged. You have to see the better in people.


One of my New Year’s resolutions was to walk around or bike around my neighborhood more, and feel like more of a member of my community.


Thundercat: Yeah! People I’ve seen for months now will walk by and not say “hi” or “bye,” like life is that terrible. I will halfway stop a person, like “Hello! My name’s Stephen. Remember my face. You’re gonna see it a lot. Don’t walk past me and say nothing. You may have to clean my body up one day.” [Laughing]


Yeah, fuck. Strange times we live in. Maybe it’s always been strange.


Thundercat: There’s still so much more to life. You have to see the good. You have to. It’s not easy a lot of the time, but you have to. Like I said, we’re not the first humans to deal with this bullshit.


Your publicist originally gave me twenty minutes on the phone with you, but I’m glad we could have a substantive conversation. I know it’s not easy to talk about, or what people want to do with their mornings, or when they’re talking to press.


Thundercat: Naw, man, it’s absolutely beautiful. Because in reality, when you look at what’s going on–I learned this from Erykah Badu and Shafiq Husayn and Taz [Arnold] from Sa-Ra–we had a saying that everybody uses and says, and it’s funny seeing how everybody took to it: “Stay woke.” Georgia Anne Muldrow created that saying. “Everybody stay woke.” Erykah had a saying that she would always tell me when I started thinking too much. She would tell me “Get out of your mind and come out here with the rest of the world.”

If you look at it, what are you really doing at the time when you’re feeling these things? I’m standing here, in my own space, watching Scooby-Doo on a big-ass TV, my cat is being the weirdest being on the planet [by] looking for sound, and it’s a beautiful day. Another day to say “hi” and thank God for us being here. I can literally walk outside and say “hi” to people. I can be nice; I can protest; I can withdraw; I can be an artist. The fact that you can do what you want to do is proof that this isn’t that terrible. At the same time, you do have to be aware. [Laughing] I thank guys like Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney for showing us the way.


I love Richard Pryor.


Thundercat: He’s the best. He should’ve been the fuckin’ president, man. Paul Mooney should’ve been the president. I do think Paul Mooney could’ve done a better job.


He couldn’t be worse. The first time I watched Pryor I was about 13 or 14 years old, and–


Thundercat: You got it immediately, right? That’s a guy who wore everything externally–his insecurities–and the things that he grew up with allowed him to speak freely. The worst thing you can do is kill me, so why the fuck would I care what you think? Richard Pryor, for me, is a pinnacle of how this shit should be.